How I Became a Pilot and Writer

Aviation & Space Writer, James Rush Manley experienced a life changing encounter while hitchhiking along a highway like this

My life changed while hitchhiking

My new life as a pilot and writer began while hitchhiking along southern California’s Pacific coast. As my free-falling, hippy lifestyle hurtled towards certain destruction, a red-neck gave me a ride. The Creator of the universe sent an unlikely messenger to introduce me to his son, Jesus. I never learned the driver’s name nor saw him again. But after that encounter, I was sure of one thing—my life would never be the same.

Even as a young boy, my head and heart lived in the clouds—and beyond. So a short time after my hitch-hiking encounter, when I discovered my southern California college offered flight training, I hoarded every penny and signed up.

Aviation & Space Writer, James Rush Manley, viewed the earth from cessna cockpits like this one

I quickly realized that the sky was my element

On my first lesson, when the wings took the Cessna 150’s weight, I was hooked. With the help of the GI Bill, I earned a Commercial license and Instrument rating, then flew for a mining corporation. Next, I attended A&P school specializing in avionics. Later, my wife’s generous gift from her inheritance allowed me to earn a multi-engine rating and then flight and instrument instructor ratings.

She and I bought into and managed an FBO (general aviation airport business) in northern California. There I gave flight lessons, conducted single and multi-engine Part 135 commercial charter flights, and worked as a contract Air Attack pilot for the US Forest Service.

Yet despite relishing business’ challenges and flying’s joys, I felt called into ministry. Didn’t make much sense. I had neither desire nor skill to be a pastor or evangelist. Puzzled, I searched. After two years, I learned God wires us with desires and talents to serve other people. In my case, he tapped my flying passion to help folks whose only transportation options were to either walk for days or fly for minutes. Pick one.

Aviation & Space Writer, James Rush Manley, stands with a Huaorani man in front of airplane

Cawena and I (left) in the Huaorani village of Damointaro in Ecuador’s Amazon jungle

We joined Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) and moved our family to Ecuador, South America. There I flew Cessna 185s and 206s in the Amazon and coastal jungles, and Andes mountains. Our clients were missionaries, NGOs, government agencies, and the indigenous people themselves. During our final six years in the country, I served as the Ecuador Program Manager.

While hanging by four wing-attach bolts over dense jungle, I realized my other calling—writing. The rhythm, sounds, and pictures of well-crafted words fascinated me. Fashioning inspiring stories or writing clear instructions captivated me.

Aviation & Space Writer, James Rush Manley, in pilot's seat of a Cessna 206

For 17 years my office was the front left seat of a C-TU206. A bit cramped, but it had a great view

After 17 years, MAF transferred us to their U.S.-based home staff. There I got my second dream job. I became a writer. I produced web and paper copy, technical manuals, articles, and blog posts. While editing MAF’s international e-zine, I wrote a weekly column. After a 5-year run, I was encouraged to collect and publish the best of them in my first book, Call For News: Reflections of a Missionary Pilot.

Aviation & Space Writer, James Rush Manley, reporting on MAF work in northern Thailand

Reporting on MAF work in the jungles of northern Thailand

In 2015 I left MAF to focus on writing full-time. In 2018 I published my second book, Mile-High Missionary: A Jungle Pilot’s Memoir. I continue to travel in the US and abroad, teaching, speaking, and reporting. My wife and I live in southern Idaho and when I’m not writing or flying, I enjoy reading, astronomy, photography, painting, piano, golf, and skiing.


Air, Space, and Life